Werner Herzog, the filmmaker behind such legendary films as "Fitzcarraldo", "Aguirre: The Wrath of God" and the documentary "Grizzly Man" among many others, made a documentary called "Little Dieter Needs to Fly" almost a decade ago. The filmmaker follows Dieter Dengler, a pilot with the United States Navy during the Vietnam War, as Dengler revisits the country where he was shot down and taken prisoner and as he returns to his home country of Germany. Herzog believed the story to be so powerful that he decided to make a film about the incident.
"Rescue Dawn", directed by Herzog and starring Christian Bale as Dieter along with Jeremy Davies and Steve Zahn as two of his fellow POWs, follows Dieter as he prepares for his first mission as a pilot in the late 60s. He receives instructions to fly into Laos, before the war has even begun, to bomb suspected targets. During the mission he is quickly shot down and tries to attract a rescue copter or plane. Instead, soldiers and extremely angry militia find him and take him to a POW camp, where he meets Duane (Steve Zahn) and Gene (Jeremy Davies), two of the handful of American soldiers who are already being held captive in a small clearing in the middle of the harsh, hot jungle. Their guards aren't giving them enough food or water, they are chained up at night, and Dieter realizes he simply can't sit around waiting until they starve to death or the guards decide to shoot them because they are bored. He comes up with an escape plan and tries to convince everyone that it will work. But as they are starving and any potential escape means living in the jungle for a significant period of time, they are frightened and scared of the prospects.
I understand what Christian Bale is trying to do as Dieter, but the effect is still a little strange. And the character doesn't work. When we first meet Dieter, we could be watching a sequel to "Top Gun", the pilots are in a briefing, ready and raring to go, ready to jump into their planes and start flying. There are no political discussions about their mission and the objective, they are American pilots and their mission is their objective. And Dieter is particularly gung ho as this is his first mission. He smiles as everyone pats him on the back because they know this is the culmination of a lifelong dream for Dieter; Dengler was actually born in Germany and immigrated to the United States and became a citizen always dreaming of becoming a pilot and flying planes. Bale uses a very slight accent to portray Dengler's origins. And throughout the film, this accent gets a little more pronounced when Bale is trying to show Dengler's frustration. I get this part of the character. What was less successful for me was Bale's portrayal of Dengler's 'enthusiasm' throughout the film. As Dengler tries to convince the rest of the POWs, he seems to smile here and there, trying to show them that his plan will work, that there isn't a lot of danger out there. Throughout, he appears to remain particularly lucid and determined, as though the lack of food, water and livable conditions has no effect on him.
When you watch Bale's performance next to that of Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies, there is just something that doesn't mesh. Granted Duane and Gene have been in captivity longer, but even when Dengler is loosing weight (Bale will soon challenge DeNiro for the title of "Most Method Actor in Films" if he continues to lose and gain weight for every film role) he continues to appear determined and the madness affecting his friends never seems to enter the picture for Dengler. This, combined with the faint accent, makes the character seem less real even though I am sure Bale studied footage of the real Dengler, studied his mannerisms and voice.
Because there are really no politics in this film, it becomes less interesting somehow. Initially, the pilots are gung ho for the mission, despite the fact they are about to bomb many villages. And the conclusion of the film seems to indicate Dengler is ready and willing to go on another mission, as soon as he has recovered. In fact, a coda states as much at the end of the film.
I have not see "Little Dieter Needs to Fly", but I have to think that Herzog probably captured some remorse from the former pilot. In "Rescue Dawn", the story ends much earlier than this and we have no evidence of this.
"Rescue Dawn" is an interesting story but it lacks the necessary punch or a great performance from Bale to fully move the viewer.